• David Lang

Confidence: The secret sauce to peak performance

“My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.” – Hank Aaron

Like Hank Aaron, this what other confident athletes do: they keep swinging, passing, shooting, or throwing no matter what. Like Michael Jordan said, “I never lost a game. I just ran out of time.” This kind of confident mindset dictates what we think and the inner dialogue that is critical to top performance. Research in Sports Psychology yields a consistent and direct relationship between self-confidence and success in sports. Highly confident athletes’ minds are working for them, whereas less confident athletes’ minds are working against them, through their own inner dialogue, which often is unnoticed by the athlete. Their thoughts drive their emotions which, in turn, drives their behaviors. In some athletes’, high levels of self-confidence occur naturally; in others the skills necessary to improve self-confidence will have to be developed.

Before helping an athlete improve their self-confidence, they will need to develop an awareness of their self-talk. This is important because self-talk often happens without the athlete being aware and their performance then declines without reason. One of the easiest methods to help the athlete develop this awareness is retrospection.

Retrospection can take place as part of a post-game evaluation, where the athlete thinks about key moments of their performance, both good and bad, and recalls what their self-talk was at those points. They then analyze whether it helpful or harmful impact. This awareness can then be applied to future events. Retrospection can take place at any time after an event, however, the sooner the athlete does this the more accurate their recall. One thing to keep in mind, do not have the athlete do this type of analysis during the event as there is a risk of the athlete not performing at all because of paralysis by analysis.

If having the athletes perform a post-game analysis is not possible, then having them use imagery to recall specific events. The athletes’ ability with imagery will dictate the results/vividness they are able to re-create. Another useful tool is to have the athlete keep a logbook of their self-talk throughout the day. This can help athletes that are not as adept with imagery, or whose memories get muddled which reduces the effectiveness of retrospection. Once the athlete has gathered their self-talk findings, they need to implement an action plan to change the self-talk from negative to positive, in turn improving their self-confidence. Depending on the age of the athlete, a coach, a mental performance specialist or parent can help them more forward from here.

Once the athlete has mastered the awareness the following actions can all be used to assist the athlete(s) in developing confidence. The common skill of using affirmations can be a good place to start. Affirmations are positive statements about the athlete and have the following key characteristics: 1) should be stated to say what is desired as if you already had it, 2) be believable, 3) detailed, and 4) based on a previous successful performance. For example, an athlete that scored the winning goal might say when their team is down, and the pressure is on “I play my best and my teammates can count on me to come through and score”. Keeping a list of past successes that the athlete experienced would help facilitate statements or reminders that can be drawn upon when needed.

Thought stopping is another great skill to use once the athlete is aware of automatic negative self-talk. Like affirmations, thought stopping can be used during a competitive event but must be planned outside of competition. After reviewing the list of negative self-talk statements and the preceding causal event, the athlete writes out counter positive self-talk phrases and rehearses the statements regularly. When that situation happens again and the athlete starts down a negative path, they can tell themselves “STOP” and then revert to the rehearsed statement. For example, there is a pitching change in the middle of an at bat. The batter starts to have a negative reaction which leads to doubt they will get a hit. They can tell themselves stop and replace with the positive statement while the new pitcher warms up and regain the confidence needed to be a success.

From the previous example, let’s say that the batter still struck out (remember increasing confidence does not guarantee success), returns to the dugout concerned that they would have to face the same pitcher their next at bat, and begins to lose confidence. Prior to the athlete returning to the field a coach might offer them a different view of situation for their next at bat. More seasoned athletes, once practiced, can do this on their own with a key word or phrase from the coach. A prime example of this was Babe Ruth, he said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Looking at it from that point of view makes strikes and even strike outs a positive occurrence to get excited about (high self-confidence) and not dread (low self-confidence). Attempting to change a player’s innate outlook from pessimistic to optimistic will take time, consistent effort, and patience from the coach and player.

Sometimes, even the best efforts to improve a player’s confidence by introducing any of the previous skills runs into a wall. Meaning, what if the athlete still believes their negative thoughts? This could be due to a lack of maturity or there is an underlying issue that is leading to the irrational beliefs and thoughts experienced by the athlete. For example, a client, who is a young athlete (middle school age) that had a private training session with the local High School Varsity Basketball Coach, and he went 0-12 in free throws. The athlete was devastated even though the rest of the training went great. The athlete was so upset that they began to believe it was a secret tryout for the top team and that they would not make a team after that session. This athlete’s thinking was problematic in two ways: first, they were catastrophizing the impact of the free throws had on the Coaches opinion of their ability and second, they believed they needed to be perfect in all aspects of their game. In this case, a coach, parent, or mental skills professional should counter by using facts and reason to refute the underlying beliefs that led to the negative thinking. This discussion would best take place after the athlete has regained their composure and open to a discussion about their thinking and the event that lead to the downward spiral.

In summary, success at any level of sport is directly related to an athlete’s self-confidence. Self-confidence is positively or negatively impacted by the player’s self-talk. But there is good news: a coach, parent, or mental skills coach can influence a player’s self-talk by helping them with the following skills: Retrospect, Self-Talk Logbook, Positive Affirmations, Thought Stopping, Different Point of View and Countering.

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